Arenas filled with sports fans, oilfields working at full tilt, movie shoots going on unimpeded, and corporate offices buzzing with activity again.
Those are just some of the possibilities opened up by rapid COVID-19 testing, something more Canadian companies are taking a close look at as the global pandemic moves into its second year. At stake, experts say, are not only workers’ and customers’ health, but also millions of dollars in revenue which can be lost in the event of a large workplace outbreak.
This month, several large Canadian companies began rolling out small-scale pilots of rapid antigen screening for COVID as part of a consortium led by U of T based Creative Destruction Labs. Among the names? Scotiabank, Suncor Energy, Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment, Air Canada, and Rogers Communications. Across the country, other companies are pushing ahead on their own, some of them even using a rapid version of the gold standard PCR diagnostic tests used in labs.
The consortium is using antigen tests made by other companies, such as Abbott’s Panbio or BD’s Veritor, which don’t require a lab or specialized equipment. Consortium members are creating an open-source how-to manual for how large companies could ramp testing up on a widespread basis, explained infectious disease specialist Laura Rosella, who’s working with the consortium.
“It’s less about the technology itself than ‘let’s figure out a system that works,’” said Rosella, who’s also the chair of U of T’s infectious disease PhD program. “Implementing things at scale is complicated. This is a way of helping companies do that, based on real-world experiences.”
The consortium decided to work with antigen screening tests, largely because they’re cheaper and usually quicker than the polymerase chain reaction (PCR) tests typically done in labs, said Rosella. Antigen cost as little as $5 apiece, while PCR tests can cost more than $80.
“It needs to be scalable. It can’t be something where you run into resource issues whether it’s financial or staffing. It’s not going to be possible to scale up if you can’t find enough people with the training and expertise to do it. It’s a huge constraint,” said Rosella.
Dr. Irfan Dhalla, co-chair of a federal expert advisory panel on testing and screening for COVID-19, says the speed of antigen testing makes it a vital tool in fighting workplace spread.
“Given how much COVID is circulating in Toronto and many other cities right now, rapid antigen tests should first be deployed in settings where people must congregate, like food processing plants,” said Dhalla, adding that a negative result doesn’t mean anyone should feel they’re free and clear.
“A rapid antigen test is better than no test at all, so long as it’s not used as a free pass to disengage from recommendations about physical distancing, working from home and masking,” Dhalla said.
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Antigen screening tests, which are used to detect proteins found in the virus that causes COVID-19, are less accurate than the gold standard PCR, which are used to detect genetic material from the virus. Estimates of the number of false negatives from antigen screening range up to 30 per cent, while PCR tests are typically considered to be accurate 95 per cent of the time.
Still, the PCR tests don’t inherently take more time to diagnose a patient, argues Mario Thomas, founder of Precision Biomonitoring, a Guelph-based biotech firm which makes a PCR test designed for rapid, on-site diagnosis. Instead, says Thomas, it’s transport time, having access to a lab, and a lab technician that’s the time-consuming bit.
The key part of Precision Biomonitoring’s rapid COVID-testing arsenal is a miniature, on-site lab, which can process 9 PCR tests in an hour. The catch? It costs $18,000 and needs a lab technician to run it.
Thomas says that hasn’t stopped customers from snapping them up.
“We’ve got one customer in the energy sector who has 12 of these units across the country,” said Thomas, adding that other customers are in industries as varied as manufacturing and TV and movie production.
While acknowledging that $18,000 would be a significant chunk of change for smaller firms, Thomas says it pales in comparison to the money that could be lost if there’s a major outbreak at an energy producer or a movie shoot gets stopped.
“If they have a production shutdown and it costs them a million dollars, and it costs them $18,000 to have peace of mind, it’s more than worth it,” said Thomas, who estimated Precision Biomonitoring has sold 100 of the mini-PCR labs to customers across the country. They’ve also helped those customers find lab techs to run them.
“We’ve got more companies using these outside of urban areas than inside them. So far, we haven’t had any trouble helping them find lab techs,” said Thomas.
Whatever kind of testing is used — antigen or PCR, there’s no longer any excuse for companies not to have something in place, Thomas added.
“If the will is there, the technology is available. So there’s no excuse. I could understand that perspective nine months ago when supply was more challenging, there were no portable devices, there were no antigen tests. But today, if you want to implement this in your organization, you can,” said Thomas.
Josh Rubin is a Toronto-based business reporter. Follow him on Twitter: @starbeer
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